Netherseal and Overseal – Derbyshire’s National Forest villages

The village of Netherseal, St Peter's Church and the high brick wall on the foundations of what may have been a Norman keep

The village of Netherseal, St Peter's Church and the high brick wall on the foundations of what may have been a Norman keep - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Although Netherseal and Overseal are no longer a single manor, parish and township, there is more than a ‘seal’ that still joins these two villages, situated one and a half miles apart in southernmost Derbyshire

Members of Netherseal Tennis Club

Members of Netherseal Tennis Club - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Although Netherseal and Overseal are no longer a single manor, parish and township, there is more than a ‘seal’ that still joins these two villages, situated one and a half miles apart in southernmost Derbyshire. Interestingly, it’s in more recent times that they have come to share more than a history of manorialism, mining and agriculture. Aside from the fact that their Anglican churches are now ministered by one rector, the Revd Michael Yates, they both still have a pub, store and post office – many similar-sized villages have either one or none of these – a thriving, highly regarded primary school, and a tangible community spirit.

It is also fascinating to note that Netherseal and Overseal are returning to the roots of their shared suffix. Seal derives from the Old English scegel, ‘a diminutive of scorga’, meaning a shaw or wood, with Nether meaning ‘lower’ and Over meaning ‘upper’. Netherseal was recorded in the Domesday Book as being a wooded area. Nine centuries on, both villages are back to being greener places through the establishment of the National Forest.

There is plenty of green as I drive away from the grey of the A38 dual carriageway and head towards Netherseal, negotiating narrow country lanes flanked by rolling countryside of grassland and copses. Netherseal is remarkably rustic considering much of its working population served a large two-shaft colliery which employed, at its height, 700 men, before it closed in 1947. As long-time resident Sue Taylor comments, ‘Netherseal is quiet, peaceful and rural with beautiful walks and countryside on our doorstep.’

On entering Netherseal, where I was kindly shown round by Parish Council Chairman Tony Stone, I parked by the Village Hall, looking as splendid as the day it was built in 1934 when it was described as ‘one of the finest village halls in the country.’ Opposite is a high brick wall resting on a platform of solid stone which Arthur Mee’s Derbyshire states could be the remains of a Norman castle. This wall sweeps around the corner and leads up to the Church of St Peter, parts of which date back to the 13th century. Its fine perpendicular tower sits imposingly on a mown grassy bank, looking over a row of almshouses built in 1699.

Philip King in the grounds of The Old Rectory

Philip King in the grounds of The Old Rectory - Credit: Ashley Franklin

I was immediately taken by this attractive heart of Netherseal with its wide, grassy verges and singular residences, notably the handsome Old School House, though the larger, more stately houses – Netherseal Old Hall and The Old Rectory – are largely hidden away. St Peter’s churchwarden Noreen Jones told me that this part of the village has stayed very much as it was from the time the church was refurbished in 1877. As for the rest of Netherseal, she recalled, as a child in the 1940s, a village with two bakers, two grocers, butcher, blacksmith, milliner, saddler, wheelwright, undertaker and cycle repair shop.

Another impressive house is the converted barn where David Savory and his wife Sara reside. A former milking parlour built over 200 years ago, it was ‘love at first viewing’ for the Savorys. Although already renovated, their refurbishment has helped to create a stunning blueprint for any sympathetic barn conversion.

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The stately house of Netherseal Hall was demolished in 1933 and on its site is Newlands House, a Leonard Cheshire home. The Hall was a Jacobean mansion and the seat of the Gresley family for several centuries.

A blue plaque reveals that Netherseal’s most distinguished resident, Sir Nigel Gresley, spent his childhood at The Old Rectory. Although Sir Nigel moved away from Netherseal to make his name as one of Britain’s great railway pioneers – designing both the Flying Scotsman and the Mallard – an interpretation board in the village refers to him as ‘a true son of Netherseal’ and points out that ‘Nigel’s interest in railway locomotives was stimulated by first seeing them on the Netherseal colliery branch line.’

St Matthew's Church, Overseal

St Matthew's Church, Overseal - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Another notable Netherseal resident was General Sir George Hewett, who was in charge of coastal defences against a possible Napoleonic invasion. It’s to be hoped that it wasn’t a lack of confidence that inspired his purchase of Netherseal Old Hall – about as far from the sea as it’s possible to get. It’s ironic to note that a later resident – at the turn of the 20th century – was Cyril Grant Cunard, grandson of the Cunard Line founder Samuel Cunard.

A local pamphlet of memories by Charles Kirby reveals some of the rich characters who lived in Netherseal in the first half of the 20th century, such as Matilda Scattergood. A fitting first name – Matilda means ‘Maid of battle’ – but not an apt surname as she constantly strewed ill-will towards neighbours and tenants and was noted for the frequency of her ‘lawyers’ letters’. Her ‘war-like temperament’ so exasperated her tenant Mrs Perry that she bundled Miss Scattergood into an outhouse, locked the door and ‘gave her a lecture through the keyhole for an hour.’

A more lovable character was village roadman William Bosworth. Every village could do with a Mr Bosworth. If it snowed overnight, he would be out as soon as he could see and every footpath in the neighbourhood would be cleared by the time most residents turned out.

A Netherseal character who local historian Mark Knight told me about was Zachary Johnson, a 17th century parson who ‘scandalised and distressed the villagers’ to the extent that they petitioned Parliament to have him removed. This ‘carousing figure’ would fraternise with the miners on a Saturday night and, worse still, indulge in the pastime of ‘cudgels’ or single-stick. A forerunner of fencing, players would beat each other with sticks, the winner being the person who drew blood from his opponent’s head.

Mark Knight by the Overseal Winding Wheel, which came from Donisthorpe Colliery

Mark Knight by the Overseal Winding Wheel, which came from Donisthorpe Colliery - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Today, Netherseal has a strong reputation for the more genteel pursuit of tennis. Just outside the village, Grangewood Tennis Centre, founded by Alan Christian, provides coaching for all ages, seven days a week, with sometimes over 100 players converging on a Saturday.

Netherseal Tennis Club’s superb facilities – four all-weather floodlit courts, modern clubhouse and rural location – must make it one of the finest village tennis clubs in the country. It’s well supported and produces many talented youngsters who have gone on to county level. One renowned past member is Derby County legend David Nish. Treasurer Sue Taylor, who was his mixed partner, recalls ‘a very good player who could have made it to Wimbledon at junior level.’

In a Burton Mail article about the Netherseal club in 1962, Frank Smith – who along with wife Ethel revitalised the club in the 1930s – remarked that ‘if players can’t play for the fun of it, they should not play at all.’

The same article reveals that when tennis giant Fred Perry came to play at Netherseal in 1955, he effectively played for the fun of it, although he didn’t walk away entirely empty-handed. After his exhibition match, Frank approached the great man and told him club funds were limited and ‘we can’t really afford to pay you.’ Perry replied: ‘That’s all right. We’ll call it quits if you give me a couple of dozen eggs.’

Overseal House, built for industrialist Joseph Wilkes around 1760

Overseal House, built for industrialist Joseph Wilkes around 1760 - Credit: Ashley Franklin

A short time later, Frank received a letter from Fred Perry’s father, who thanked him profusely for the eggs, pointing out that due to his condition, ‘eggs have now to be my main support.’

Frank’s son Nigel, who is chairman of the tennis club, told me that his father struck up a friendship not only with Perry but with other notable players who came to Netherseal, including Tony Pickard who went on to coach Stefan Edberg when he was World No. 1.

Currently the tennis club is thriving, 12 years on from the time it could have folded following an arson attack which destroyed their clubhouse. ‘It was devastating but I never doubted the club would recover,’ says Sue Taylor. With a steely determination, possibly driven by the fact that Sue and her husband John fell in love on the tennis court as teenagers, the two of them spearheaded a project where committee and club members rallied round, raising £40,000 and rebuilding the clubhouse.

The club allows free use of their facilities to the adjacent St Peter’s Primary, a highly reputable school that two years ago won the British Council’s International School Award for its work in ‘bringing the world into its classroom.’

Netherseal certainly seems busy and active. As well as a well-used village hall, it has St Peter’s Sports Club at the other end of the village; a music/concert club which has been graced by Chris Farlowe and the late Paul Daniels; Marion’s, the vital newsagent, post office and store where Marion Knight has worked tirelessly seven days a week for 45 years; and The Seal, a popular freehold inn which has been run for the last 11 years by Amy and Nathan.

There was once a pub just outside Netherseal called The Four Counties because it stood on No Man’s Heath where the borders of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire met. The inn had four rooms, one in each county, and it was said that anyone who had fallen foul of the law in one county could retire to another room and be beyond the reach of jurisdiction. There is now an Indian restaurant there, called Four Counties Spice.

I found myself gazing across at Leicestershire as I stood – in Derbyshire – on the lawn of The Old Rectory. Philip King, the renowned head of the South Derbyshire Music Centre, has lived with his wife Pam for 45 years in Nether House, the part of the Rectory that housed the servants’ quarters. ‘This is a particularly lovely setting,’ says Philip. ‘The house stands back behind a wall which dulls much of the traffic noise; it faces due south and therefore catches the day’s sun; the small River Mease meanders at the bottom of the garden; and it looks out onto the fields of Leicestershire. All in all, a very peaceful spot.’

Patricia Pryce-Jones, who resides in the larger part of the Old Rectory, made an emotional return to Netherseal in 2009, purchasing the property where she used to come and play over 50 years ago. In between Patricia has travelled extensively, living in Italy and the West Indies, but as she told me: ‘This is the place where I feel at peace, welcomed back and cared for. I have friends still here from my youth and Netherseal has not lost its warmth and charm.’

Since the blue plaque to Gresley was erected on the wall outside the Old Rectory in 2013, both Patricia and Philip have noticed a steady influx of steam train enthusiasts, who can also visit the gravestones of Sir Nigel and his wife Ethel. Both are simple but prominent white marble graves with a slab of coal at the bottom of each cross. The graves are sheltered beneath an oak tree that grew from the sapling of the Boscobel Oak in which Charles II hid after the Battle of Worcester, which was actually planted by Sir Nigel’s father, the Revd Nigel Gresley.

Well done to the Parish Council member who had the inspired idea of growing acorns from this tree and planting 15 of them around the village in 2018 to commemorate the soldiers from Netherseal who perished in World War I. There has also been a prodigious amount of research on these men, as can be seen on the Netherseal website, run by David Savory. It reveals that only one of the soldiers, Gunner Arthur King, is buried in the village. He survived the slaughter of both the Somme and Ypres, only to succumb to chlorine gas in the Battle of Estaires in April, 1918. Arthur was returned home where he died from the poisoning days before the war ended.

The 15 Oak Trees project has stuttered owing to the infertile nature of the Boscobel Oak acorns but the village still intends to plant 15 oaks, with a bench and plaque beside each group of trees.

David has done a fine job on the Netherseal website, with Clive Chadbourne contributing a history of Netherseal which has only reached 1066 but already has enough rich detail to fill a book.

Overseal’s history is in good hands: Mark Knight, a refreshingly young Parish Councillor, earned a history degree at the University of Derby with a dissertation on Overseal and is now studying for a PhD. His inspiration was the development of The National Forest which, for Mark, has seen the ‘transformation of an industrial village into a visitor destination.’

As Mark points out, even before The National Forest began to grow, several holiday lets and guest houses in Overseal, along with a Youth Hostel and camping and caravanning sites nearby, had seen tourism slowly develop, and he now sees a ‘steadily increasing volume of walkers and visitors from the campsites making use of the village facilities.’

The mines were big employers in Overseal, which is commemorated in the grounds of the local primary school where the winding wheel from the Donisthorpe Colliery sits. Mark told me that Overseal also had pipe yards, brickyards and much agricultural labouring. He took me to view an unusual sight: a high wall built of sewage and draining pipes, which the local clay was perfect for. Robinson Dowlers sanitary pipes were shipped all round the world.

Mark then showed me the grandiose home of Joseph Wilkes, an 18th century industrialist hailed as ‘one of the most outstanding community builders in the Midlands.’ Entrepreneur Wilkes embraced a wide range of industries: textile manufacturing, road and canal building, river and waterway improvement, banking, metalworking, brickmaking, coal mining, agricultural improvement, tramway design and even cheese-making and animal breeding.

Overseal might have been a different place had Wilkes concentrated his enterprises in the village of his birth. As it turned out, it was neighbouring Measham (then in Derbyshire) which he transformed from a tiny mining village to a model settlement of the Industrial Revolution.

The effect of mining in Overseal is reflected in a notice that appeared in the ‘60s under the village sign: ‘Sorry about the mess. We’ve got the Coal Board in.’ As Mark reveals: ‘The open cast coal and clay pits blotted the village landscape well into the 1990s. But then came The National Forest, and it’s been fascinating to watch the landscape change from black to green, to move from less than one per cent tree cover to over 30 per cent.’

To celebrate Overseal’s transition, Mark – who is also a musician – has produced an album of original songs, Wayfarers All, inspired by the history, folklore and mythology along The National Forest Way, a recently introduced 75-mile footpath that passes right through Overseal.

One particularly poignant song is When the Nightingale Returns (below). As Mark explains: ‘The bird disappeared from here over 50 years ago and it was always said that we would know if The National Forest had succeeded when nightingales returned. I saw three and heard several more a couple of years ago in a local wood planted in the 1990s that is now quite well established.’

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